Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ (fake it till you make it)

Film version sponsored by Microsoft Word… and prescription drug companies everywhere.

A high school senior over-prescribed mood pills and letters-to-self for depression and anxiety, awkward Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is so invisible he can belt out heartfelt show tunes in the middle of crowded hallways and no one notices. When assumed-miscreant Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) takes his own life, a complex misunderstanding gives way to a simple lie… opening the door to Evan getting the attention he secretly craves, including Connor’s unattainable sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) whom he’d been crushing on from afar. When a viral speech at Connor’s memorial goes global, Evan gets everything he ever wanted — a social media presence, a surrogate family, and even the proverbial girl — and if you can’t see the other shoe about to drop, you haven’t been paying attention.

With Steven Spielberg’s delayed remake of West Side Story looming on the holiday horizon, another Broadway hit gets the Tinseltown treatment about a teenager “who invents an important role for himself he didn’t earn.” The original stage production had reportedly been criticized for being tone deaf over the core subjects of mental illness and suicide, especially in playing up bits of the story as humorous that feel strained at best. At over two hours, can the staged play translate to the big screen and find an audience bigger than its Broadway fandom?

One of the central issues translating any musical to screen is either masking or celebrating its origins. Disney animated movies can get away with it because animation embraces its own illusion, as do filmed-on-stage presentations the way Hamilton was done. If the filmed version of Dear Evan Hansen had dropped the songs, or if the artificial aspects were played up more like a Bollywood production (end musical number optional), the final cut would be an easier pill to swallow. As it is, employing a suicide victim as a catalyst while providing the least possible mentioning of him until that, too, becomes another plot device is everything you need to know, and no amount of upbeat tunes can bury that particular corpse.

Dear Evan Hansen begins with every arm-breaking, pill-spilling, cyber-stalking, teen-pressuring, misremembering, and suicide-exploiting plot device ever — even a tech-savvy gay best “family” friend who has it all together. It also appears that everyone in their high school from the sports star jock to the lowliest geek are all on some kind of medication — listed by brand name! Beneath the stage-play elements is the core of a better story, but adherence to the original script and an insistence on diluting every scene of drama with another song stretches a long runtime even longer. Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever and The Hate U Give’s Amandla Stenberg are standouts among the kids in the cast while Julianne Moore and Amy Adams elevate the production, but having an aging Ben Platt reprise his Broadway role as still being a seventeen-year old strains credibility.

It’s the most Shakespearean of tropes for characters to make plot-motivating assumptions rather than talk to one another, but proper comeuppance for such offenses are in short supply here, as the Bard would have killed off deserving characters. Could someone make a horror sequel where the victim returns to exact his revenge and call it Die Evan Hansen? Free idea for whomever wants it!

Dear Evan Hansen is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language, some suggestive references, and I will sing no requiem… tonight.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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